Commentary Magazine


Topic: IRS Scandal

Governing Solo? Two Can Play That Game

President Obama is making no secret of his intentions to go it alone in the last two years of his presidency. After insisting his policies were on the ballot in the midterms, he and his presidency received a monumental drubbing. Obama asked the people to vote based on his agenda, and the people complied, unambiguously rejecting it. But neither the voters nor the system of checks and balances–to say nothing of constitutional precedent–have played much of a role in his actions, and they won’t start now. There is a difference, however, in how Congress can push back.

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President Obama is making no secret of his intentions to go it alone in the last two years of his presidency. After insisting his policies were on the ballot in the midterms, he and his presidency received a monumental drubbing. Obama asked the people to vote based on his agenda, and the people complied, unambiguously rejecting it. But neither the voters nor the system of checks and balances–to say nothing of constitutional precedent–have played much of a role in his actions, and they won’t start now. There is a difference, however, in how Congress can push back.

In Bob Gates’s first (and, frankly, more enlightening) memoir of his service at the CIA and National Security Council during the Cold War, he writes of the battles between the Nixon administration and Congress after the Watergate scandal broke. Gates describes it as a last straw for Congress’s patience with the increasing power of the presidency, but in the process makes a key observation about the separation of powers:

Our system of “checks and balances” by which each of the three branches of government keeps the other two from becoming too powerful works wonderfully, but it is neither a gentle nor a subtle process. Nor does it function normally as a routine, frequent series of minor adjustments. It is more comparable to the swings of a pendulum than a balancing scale—and one branch (or the mood of the country as a whole) reacts usually only when another branch has acted so stupidly or so egregiously to expand its power as to compel a response. Vietnam and the way Lyndon Johnson escalated and fought the war provoked the congressional attack on the powers of the Presidency. Dislike of Nixon, the way in which he and Kissinger negotiated secretly and deviously, and finally Watergate and Nixon’s cover-up greatly magnified the intensity of the attack.

In this period of presidential weakness, Congress sought to capture for itself and from the President a coequal (and, at times, dominant) role in foreign affairs that it had not had since before World War II and America’s emergence as a superpower.

Gates’s description of the “pendulum” is accurate. Presidents accumulate power incrementally, sometimes setting new precedents and sometimes merely expanding on previous encroachments. Especially in wartime, Congress tends to give the president a fair amount of latitude. Additionally, there isn’t all that much Congress can do, since most of Congress rarely wants to be seen as undercutting the war effort or not supporting the troops. Eventually, however, it becomes clear that too many lines have been crossed.

And his assertion that Congress was seeking not merely to punish Nixon but also to reclaim its own proper place in the American system of government is highly relevant to the looming battle between a Republican-controlled Congress and President Obama, especially with a restive conservative flank that believes the troubling expansion of presidential power predates Obama and thus has a long list of objections.

When the Republicans were a minority in the Senate and only controlled the House, their attempts to rein in the president were legalistic. They could sue the president, as Speaker John Boehner announced they would over delays in ObamaCare implementation. They can challenge the president in the courts, where judges have found various Obama power grabs to be unconstitutional. And they can hold oversight hearings, as they have with the IRS corruption scandal, Benghazi, and others.

All this enables the minority party to make its voice heard. The hearings play on the fact that the president’s bully pulpit makes it easier for him to get through to the American people than it is for Republicans in Congress, who have the additional obstacle of a media seeking to protect the president. And judicial challenges can be effective too in undoing policy.

But there hasn’t been much room for Congress to reassert its authority because Democrats held the majority in the Senate. This meant that Harry Reid, who was happy to cede Congress’s authority to the president, relied on gridlock and parliamentary schemes to enable Obama. Republicans couldn’t get bills to the floor for a vote, and they weren’t allowed amendments on bills that Reid would bring to the floor.

But now they’re in the majority. And as the Wall Street Journal hints in a story about Obama’s solo act, that changes the calculus:

Mr. Obama’s actions have signaled a lack of concern about damaging congressional relations, [Ari Fleischer] said. And the next Congress could respond by taking actions the White House opposes, such as approving sanctions on Iran over the objections of the president.

“If the president disregards Congress, then Congress can disregard the president,” Mr. Fleischer said.

Indeed it can. That’s not to say it can simply legislate whatever it wants. It’ll need Democratic votes in some cases, especially if the GOP puts the filibuster back in its place after Reid removed it. And Obama can always veto such bills.

But the reason Reid wouldn’t allow a vote on so many of the Republicans’ ideas is that they are popular enough to pass and to put pressure on the president to sign. Either way, by actually passing legislation, the Republicans will be doing what Reid and the Democrats refused to: protect the system of checks and balances and reclaim some of Congress’s territory that has been annexed by Obama.

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Everything Wrong with Big Government in One IRS Quote

One of the most loathsome features of the administrative state is the way the taxpayers so often lose no matter which way certain disputes end up. This happens because the instruments of bureaucratic menace have too much power. That power costs taxpayers greatly, and if they elect a government to reduce that power, the affected bureaucracies have enough power left over to punish them for it. What’s worse, they know it. And, as the IRS’s comments to Politico today make clear, they don’t feel the need to veil their threats anymore.

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One of the most loathsome features of the administrative state is the way the taxpayers so often lose no matter which way certain disputes end up. This happens because the instruments of bureaucratic menace have too much power. That power costs taxpayers greatly, and if they elect a government to reduce that power, the affected bureaucracies have enough power left over to punish them for it. What’s worse, they know it. And, as the IRS’s comments to Politico today make clear, they don’t feel the need to veil their threats anymore.

The Politico story is on the Republican Party’s plans to rein in the regulatory state in the next Congress. Up to now, House Republicans have mostly centered their efforts at holding the government accountable on oversight, leaning heavily on hearings. Though the GOP already had much of the “power of the purse” through its House majority, having a majority in the Senate expands the party’s ability to actually pass certain spending priorities. And they appear intent on doing so.

The GOP put cuts in the IRS budget in the so-called “CRomnibus” spending bill being debated today. And the IRS is warning them not to come one step closer–or the taxpayer gets it:

IRS watchers warn that the agency is spiraling toward a rocky future that will rival some of its darkest days in its history, when whistleblowers blew the lid off IRS agents abusing power and thousands of tax returns were lost in the mail.

“Unless we are able to correct this, very bad things will happen to taxpayers,” said Nina Olson of the National Taxpayer Advocate, at a November tax preparer conference — over a month before the latest budget cuts even came to light.

Ahem: the National Taxpayer Advocate isn’t exactly an “IRS watcher”; it’s the IRS. That is some brazen sleight of hand from Politico. Now to be fair, the NTA is a sort of consumer advocate within the agency, a cross between an ombudsman and a customer service hotline. But this is actually a great example of how even aspects of the government that ostensibly exist to help the taxpayer really underline the problem with the system to begin with.

Why do we need a taxpayer advocate within the IRS? Well, two reasons. First because agencies with no oversight and the power to confiscate your money tend to abuse that authority–as we saw with the revelations about the IRS targeting scandal. And second, because the sheer size and complexity of tax law means even well meaning citizens will run afoul of the law.

What’s the solution to these two problems? The obvious, and sensible, one is to give the IRS less power and to reduce the tax burden and simplify the tax code. The regulatory state’s answer is to keep those problems unsolved but hire a couple thousand more employees to deal with it, at taxpayer expense. Heads they win, tails you lose.

The same holds true for the impending “crisis” for the IRS this tax season. Back to Politico:

Spending negotiators this week froze most agency budgets but reduced the IRS funds to $10.9 billion, a 3 percent cut over last year and $1.5 billion below the president’s request. Appropriators bragged in a release that the level is even lower than the IRS’s 2008 budget.

Those new cuts come atop more than a $1 billion reduction to the IRS budget since 2010, which has forced the tax-collecting agency to shed 13,000 employees while it serves an additional 7 million taxpayers, according to IRS Commissioner John Koskinen.

Those reductions are about to manifest in what Olson is predicting will be the “worst filing season” in years. For the first time, the agency will be administering Obamacare and another massive international tax law.

So ObamaCare is costing families more in health insurance, and now it’s costing them more–at least if the IRS has its way–in associated implementation costs. And you just have to love the last part of that quote: “another massive international tax law.” Allow me to suggest that the agency enforcing “another massive international tax law” is not the victim here.

The IRS wastes money. That’s not the taxpayer’s fault, but now it’s the taxpayer’s problem. Welcome to the administrative state. And what is the IRS’s priority for next year? Cutting back? Nope: “The IRS early in 2015 is expected to release a draft rule to clarify how much political activity these 501(c)(4) groups can legally engage in while keeping their tax-exempt status.”

So it’s going to go after nonprofits again, and will spend its time and (your) money hassling and harassing citizens in order to curb their political speech. All this tells you Republicans are exactly right to go down this route, despite the sympathetic press the IRS will get in Politico and other Beltway outlets. The American people should not be blackmailed and treated as hostages by their own government. The agency’s response to the threat of budget cuts shows just how necessary it is to carry them out.

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It’s Time to Talk About Serious IRS Reform

On the eve of the 25th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, the Washington Post noted an amusing coincidence: “Almost a quarter century ago, Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson served as Republican counsel on the Senate Watergate committee. Now he chairs the Senate panel investigating the current White House fund-raising scandal.” The timing was interesting because, as the Post explained, the “controversy came to light last year because of the reforms of Watergate, including requirements that campaigns and political parties regularly submit lists of their contributors to the Federal Election Commission.”

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On the eve of the 25th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, the Washington Post noted an amusing coincidence: “Almost a quarter century ago, Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson served as Republican counsel on the Senate Watergate committee. Now he chairs the Senate panel investigating the current White House fund-raising scandal.” The timing was interesting because, as the Post explained, the “controversy came to light last year because of the reforms of Watergate, including requirements that campaigns and political parties regularly submit lists of their contributors to the Federal Election Commission.”

The Post went on to list seven major reforms that stemmed either from the scandal itself or the atmosphere of distrust in government in the wake of Watergate. Of course these reforms had at best a mixed record. And some of them, like the campaign-finance reforms, ended up strengthening the government’s hand over Americans, reducing transparency, and infringing on voters’ constitutional rights. There was also the famed Church Committee, designed to expose abuses in the intel community and rein in its associated federal agencies.

And it is quite clear that while some have called for a new Church Committee in the wake of Moscow defector Edward Snowden’s theft and dissemination of American secrets to investigate the intel community, what is really needed is a full accounting and reform of a different federal agency: the IRS.

We have covered here exhaustively the massive abuse-of-power scandal surrounding the IRS’s targeting of conservatives ahead of the 2012 presidential election, and doing so at the encouragement of prominent Democrats. That surely should be enough to prompt a full investigation–especially since it was revealed that Eric Holder’s Justice Department is apparently coordinating with congressional Democrats to undermine the investigation and protect the IRS. But there’s another IRS scandal brewing, and it suggests the agency is long overdue for a reckoning.

John Fund notes that the private-jet company NetJets has been in a tax dispute with the IRS, and is claiming the IRS–you guessed it–destroyed evidence by having “wiped clean a number of computer hard drives containing emails and other electronic documents that the Government was required to produce.” Fund provides the background to the case:

NetJets sued the IRS in 2011, claiming that it improperly applied a ticket tax on users of its aircraft that is meant for commercial airline passengers. The IRS countersued claiming that NetJets “has failed, neglected or refused to pay its federal tax liabilities . . . in full.” But its argument was undercut in 2012 when Congress changed the tax code to make it clear the air-passenger-ticket tax doesn’t apply to private firms such as NetJets, whose customers buy time-shares in planes operated by the company.

In its latest court filing, NetJets claims the IRS has been concealing evidence. Its lawyers say the computers of three key IRS employees were wiped clean, including the computer of “an excise-tax policy manager and a key decision maker regarding the application of the section 4261 ticket tax to whole and fractional aircraft-management companies.”

Amazing. The agency assigned to take your money at will covers its tracks by destroying evidence, apparently routinely. I had noted in the past that destroying evidence seems to have become the IRS’s key strategy in the targeting scandal. It appears to be its policy with regard to disputes in general. It should go without saying that at this point there is really no denying the agency needs serious reform.

That poses its own challenges, to be sure. For one, high-level Democrats in the president’s Cabinet and in Congress are supporting and enabling the IRS here, so Democrats are unlikely to be very cooperative in the kind of investigation that would expose them to transparency and accountability as well.

Another challenge is the law of unintended consequences. As we saw with some of the post-Watergate reforms, giving politicians the power to pass sweeping regulations often just exacerbates existing problems. The regulatory regime is partly to blame for the current IRS scandal as it is, because the agency was tasked with being the gatekeeper to Americans’ political activism. Since the IRS is a creature of big-government bureaucracy, it went after the Americans who supported limited-government causes. The current regulatory regime governing the IRS pits the American government against the people, with the inevitable results.

Additionally, if the IRS has been routinely destroying evidence or deleting emails it’s supposed to save then it’s already breaking the law. There’s not much sense in going through a reform process if the result is only to take something that’s currently illegal and make it super-duper-illegal. That would be classic Washington behavior, and it should be avoided.

Perhaps the best answer is a much-simplified tax code and fewer rules limiting political speech. The IRS can’t abuse power it doesn’t have, after all. In fact, serious tax reform would be saving the IRS from itself–think of all the computers and phones it won’t have to completely destroy each year in an attempt to evade accountability.

Whatever the case, it would be criminal–figuratively, though very possibly also literally–for the scandals to pass without reforming the agency.

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Bridgegate, the Media, and Lessons for 2016

The apparent exoneration by federal investigators of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie in the scandal over the lane closures on a bridge last year may be good news for Christie, but other prospective 2016 GOP candidates should take notice. The media’s unhinged obsession with hyping and trumping up the story in an effort to take down a presidential candidate was just a warm-up act. Far from chastened, the media is almost certainly just getting started.

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The apparent exoneration by federal investigators of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie in the scandal over the lane closures on a bridge last year may be good news for Christie, but other prospective 2016 GOP candidates should take notice. The media’s unhinged obsession with hyping and trumping up the story in an effort to take down a presidential candidate was just a warm-up act. Far from chastened, the media is almost certainly just getting started.

That means that if Christie really is exonerated–which he has been insisting he would be for months–conservatives should expect the leftist press to choose a new target. Although the coverage of this scandal leaves the mainstream press looking utterly humiliated, they won’t be humbled. A good precedent is when the New York Times concocted false accusations against John McCain in 2008 intended to destroy not just his campaign but his family; after the story was called out for the unethical hit job it was, especially on the right, then-Times editor Bill Keller responded: “My first tendency when they do that is to find the toughest McCain story we’ve got and put it on the front page.”

Getting called out for bias only makes the media more likely to give in to its vindictive instincts. This is the press version of an in-kind contribution, and those contributions don’t go to Republican campaigns.

In January conservative media watchers were passing around the statistics that showed the lopsided coverage the media was giving “Bridgegate” vs. the IRS scandal. One of the charts, which showed dedicated coverage over a fixed period of time, bothered reporters. In one of the unconvincing “defenses” of his fellow journalists, the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza objected:

The comparison made in this chart in terms of coverage is not an apples to apples one.  The IRS story broke on May 10. That’s a full 52 days before the Media Research Center began counting the minutes of news coverage devoted to it. The Christie story, on the other hand, broke in the Bergen Record on Jan. 8, the same day that MRC began tracking its mentions in the media.

What Cillizza actually demonstrated, unintentionally, was a far worse aspect of the coverage that was tougher to quantify but jumps off the screen from Cillizza’s post. And that is the general lack of interest on the part of reporters in digging into the government’s shocking misconduct–you know, practicing journalism. The lack of curiosity has been astounding.

As our Pete Wehner wrote the other day, forget basic reporting: the press ignored a genuine piece of Benghazi-related news when it fell in their laps. That’s how the IRS developments happened too. The initial story was announced in the IRS’s attempt to get out in front of a report that had discovered the abuse of power and was going to detail its findings. The IRS decided to try to spin the news in advance to take control of the story.

And the recent revelations of the IRS’s ongoing strategy of destroying evidence during the investigation were brought to the public’s attention by the group Judicial Watch, which has been filing Freedom of Information Act requests for documents. The latest piece of news, that Attorney General Eric Holder’s office tried to coordinate a strategy with House Democrats to blunt the impact of future revelations about the IRS’s illegal targeting scheme, came to light because Holder’s office accidentally called Darrell Issa’s office instead of Democrat Elijah Cummings.

The difference in media coverage was only part of the story, then. The more serious part was that the media is just not doing their jobs when the target of the investigation is the Obama administration. That doesn’t mean all reporters, of course, or that they’re ignoring all stories. But the pattern is pretty clear: when we learn something about Obama administration misbehavior, it’s generally not from reporters, many of whom eventually get hired by the Obama administration.

The other aspect of the coverage gap is the type of story. Surely Cillizza thinks a staffer closing lanes on a bridge, however indefensible, is a different caliber of story than the IRS, at the encouragement of high-ranking Democrats, undertaking a targeting scheme to silence Obama’s critics in the lead-up to his reelection. Cillizza was right, in other words: conservatives weren’t comparing apples to apples. But he was wrong in thinking that stacked the deck in favor of conservatives’ conclusion; the opposite was the case.

We’ve already seen this with other prospective GOP 2016 candidates. When Wisconsin prosecutors initiated a wide-ranging “John Doe” investigation intended to silence conservative groups and voters in Wisconsin and level false allegations against Scott Walker, the media ran with the story. It turned out that the investigation was so unethical that those prosecutors now stand accused broad civil-rights violations. But the point of the coverage is to echo the false allegations against Walker, not to get the story right. So the media moved on.

And they moved on to Rick Perry, who was the target of an indictment so demented that only the most extreme liberals defended it. The point of the case, though, was to get headlines announcing Perry’s indictment. This one may have backfired because it was so insane that, aside from former Obama advisor Jim Messina, Rachel Maddow, and a couple writers for liberal magazines, the left tried to distance themselves from it. But the fact remains: Rick Perry is under indictment.

The criminalization of politics is part of the left’s broader lawfare strategy. This is the sort of thing repellent to democratic values and certainly should draw critical attention from the press. Instead, they’ve chosen to enable it.

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Is Eric Holder Trying to Protect the IRS?

A remarkable conversation about the IRS’s illegal targeting of conservative groups took place on Friday in Washington. According to Rep. Darrell Issa’s office, at 5:01 Friday Brian Fallon, a former aide to Chuck Schumer and currently a communications aide to Attorney General Eric Holder, called Issa’s office. By mistake. And it’s quite a mistake.

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A remarkable conversation about the IRS’s illegal targeting of conservative groups took place on Friday in Washington. According to Rep. Darrell Issa’s office, at 5:01 Friday Brian Fallon, a former aide to Chuck Schumer and currently a communications aide to Attorney General Eric Holder, called Issa’s office. By mistake. And it’s quite a mistake.

The purpose of the call, according to a letter Issa wrote to Holder, was to work with the intended recipient of the call to strategically leak damaging information to selected, friendly reporters and to coordinate a damage-control plan. The intended recipient of the call was apparently Rep. Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight Committee who has gotten quite visibly nervous over the extent of the investigation into the IRS abuse–despite his attempts to protect the abusers.

Here’s Jonathan Strong at Breitbart:

The aide, Brian Fallon, is a former senior aide to Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and a well-known personality on Capitol Hill. The letter describes Fallon as “audibly shaken” when he realizes his request to leak documents to help get ahead of news stories about them was mistakenly made to the very office he was seeking to undermine. Issa believes the call was intended to be made to Democratic Rep. Elijah Cumming’s staff, the ranking member on the oversight panel, the letter said.

According to the letter, Fallon – who is not named in the letter but confirmed he made the call – asked if the aides could release the IRS scandal documents to “selected reporters” to give Fallon an “opportunity to comment publicly on it.”

Fallon explained to Issa aides that the Justice Department’s Office of Legislative Affairs had not permitted him to release the documents to the public and he wanted to get ahead of the story “before the Majority” – meaning Issa – could share it, according to the letter.

Issa aides – who had placed the call on speakerphone – were “caught off guard by the unusual nature of the call and the odd request” and asked Fallon to “e-mail the material for evaluation.”

“At this point,” Fallon “abruptly placed the call on hold for approximately three minutes.” When Fallon returned to the call, “he was audibly shaken. He immediately stated that there was a ‘change in plans’ and that there would be no effort” by DOJ to release the material early.

In other words, it looks like Holder’s Department of Justice is seeking to help the IRS and the Democrats protecting the IRS. And the only reason the public knows about it is that Holder’s office accidentally called the wrong phone. Oops.

The left’s response to the IRS targeting scandal has morphed over time as more information has come to light. Mostly gone are the truthers who think nothing unethical happened or that this is an aimless witch hunt. It’s now clear to any sentient person that the IRS was indeed engaged in this targeting scheme ahead of a presidential election. Additionally, as I wrote last week, it’s since been revealed that the IRS began destroying evidence once the investigation into the targeting began.

That particular destruction of evidence concerned Lois Lerner, the former official at the center of the scandal, in order to get rid of her email correspondence. The media yawned at the revelation of the destruction of evidence, apparently tiring of this story. So the same day of Fallon’s phone call to Issa’s staff, the IRS admitted it lost the email of “five more workers who figure in the investigation into the alleged targeting of conservative nonprofit groups,” as the Wall Street Journal reported.

The Democratic response to the investigation has thus gone from the eminently silly denial that anything untoward took place to actively trying to thwart the investigation and run interference for the IRS–which, in its targeting scheme, was only following the pronouncements of high-level congressional Democrats, after all. And those Democrats have gotten quite uncomfortable with the investigation. Democratic Sen. Carl Levin has put together a report attacking the inspector general conducting the investigation.

Such interference and/or stonewalling wouldn’t be out of character for this DOJ. As the Washington Examiner reported yesterday, according to the department’s inspector general “Department of Justice senior officials have barred or delayed the inspector general there from gaining access to documents crucial to high-visibility investigations.”

The “nothing to see here” brigade has lost any semblance of credibility. In response, they’d like to make sure there’s actually nothing to see by the time investigators come looking for it.

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Will IRS’s Strategy of Destroying Evidence Pay Off?

If the latest revelations about the IRS are correct, then its officials have approached the abuse-of-power scandal with a clear strategy, pretty much from the beginning. They have been betting that, since their illegal targeting campaign against those who disagree with President Obama has had the backing of Democrats in Congress, they needed only a media strategy, not a political one. And that media strategy appears to have been: conceal or destroy potential (and actual) evidence, and assume that this activity will be less damaging than whatever is in the files they’ve worked to hide.

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If the latest revelations about the IRS are correct, then its officials have approached the abuse-of-power scandal with a clear strategy, pretty much from the beginning. They have been betting that, since their illegal targeting campaign against those who disagree with President Obama has had the backing of Democrats in Congress, they needed only a media strategy, not a political one. And that media strategy appears to have been: conceal or destroy potential (and actual) evidence, and assume that this activity will be less damaging than whatever is in the files they’ve worked to hide.

It’s a direct challenge to the media, in other words.

There are two aspects to the latest news. The first is that, according to Judicial Watch, the Justice Department believes Lerner’s records are backed up, but don’t want to put in the effort to find them:

Department of Justice attorneys for the Internal Revenue Service told Judicial Watch on Friday that Lois Lerner’s emails, indeed all government computer records, are backed up by the federal government in case of a government-wide catastrophe.  The Obama administration attorneys said that this back-up system would be too onerous to search.  The DOJ attorneys also acknowledged that the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) is investigating this back-up system.

We obviously disagree that disclosing the emails as required would be onerous, and plan to raise this new development with Judge Sullivan.

This is a jaw-dropping revelation.  The Obama administration had been lying to the American people about Lois Lerner’s missing emails. There are no “missing” Lois Lerner emails – nor missing emails of any of the other top IRS or other government officials whose emails seem to be disappearing at increasingly alarming rate. All the focus on missing hard drives has been a diversion. The Obama administration has known all along where the email records could be – but dishonestly withheld this information. You can bet we are going to ask the court for immediate assistance in cutting through this massive obstruction of justice.

The second piece of news is pointed out by the New York Observer:

In two elusive and nebulous sworn declarations, we can glean that Ms. Lerner had two Blackberries. One was issued to her on November 12, 2009. According to a sworn declaration, this is the Blackberry that contained all the emails (both sent and received) that would have been in her “Outlook” and drafts that never were sent from her Blackberry during the relevant time.

With incredible disregard for the law and the Congressional inquiry, the IRS admits that this Blackberry “was removed or wiped clean of any sensitive or proprietary information and removed as scrap for disposal in June 2012.” This is a year after her hard drive “crash” and months after the Congressional inquiry began.

So the IRS attempted to destroy evidence of the emails after the investigation began, and those emails might still exist somewhere beyond the reach of the government officials in charge of destroying the evidence. Again, this is a direct challenge to the media: the IRS is expecting either a pass or scandal fatigue to play to their advantage. That is, they are hoping to set a precedent that the government can get away with heavyhanded abuse of its power so long as it destroys enough of the evidence once an investigation commences.

It is especially a challenge to the press if it’s true that the emails still exist but the government doesn’t want to go through the hassle of finding them. It’s actually more brazen, in some ways, than even trying to destroy them. It’s the sign of a government with nothing but pure contempt for the people. As Walter Russell Mead argues:

But if Fitton’s claim is true, then the IRS scandal really has arrived, and it is difficult not to conclude that we are dealing with a genuine constitutional crime. This wouldn’t be a matter of bribes or personal blackmail or sexual misconduct or any of the ordinary forms of corruption that are unfortunately far too common. Rather, it’s about the deliberate use of the power of the federal government to go after political opponents, and then a desperate attempt by others to cover it up. We’re still hoping that this story is exposed to a lot more light (and perhaps less heat), but the more we see, the worse and worse it looks.

Indeed, it would go beyond the sadly all-too-routinized forms of corruption, which are bad enough. The newest round of revelations describe a government agency (and its elected allies) not only thoroughly corrupted but also insistent on its entitlement to stand above accountability. The allegations warrant front-page headlines from the country’s major newspapers, surely. So where are they?

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More Stalling from the “Most Transparent Administration Ever”

The job of an inspector general is to root out fraud, waste, and abuse in the various government departments, boards, agencies, etc. It was the Treasury IG who blew the whistle on Lois Lerner and the IRS for discriminating against conservative groups.

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The job of an inspector general is to root out fraud, waste, and abuse in the various government departments, boards, agencies, etc. It was the Treasury IG who blew the whistle on Lois Lerner and the IRS for discriminating against conservative groups.

Under the Inspector General Act of 1978 IGs have a right to unimpeded access, “to all records, reports, audits, reviews, documents, papers, recommendations, or other material available.” Only another federal law explicitly limiting access can override that. And yet the Obama administration is doing its level best to impede the investigations of several inspectors general, at the Department of Justice, the EPA, and the Peace Corps.

The situation is so bad that no fewer than 47 of the 73 inspectors general in the federal government, almost two-thirds of them, have written a letter to Rep. Darrell Issa and Senator Thomas Carper, chairmen of the relevant congressional committees, to complain about the stalling tactics and refusals to provide documents for specious reasons, such as attorney-client privilege. (As the government is the client, a government attorney has no right to claim privilege when another part of the government, the IG, asks for access.) According to Rep. Issa, the letter is unprecedented. “This is the majority of all inspectors general saying not just in the examples they gave, but government wide, they see a pattern that is making them unable to do their job.”

The lawlessness of the Obama administration seems to have no bounds and yet the mainstream media has shown little interest in this story. The “paper of record” has not covered it at all. Had this happened in the Bush administration, it would have been front-page-above-the-fold news.

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Smash the Regulatory State from Within

The rise of the regulatory state is not something conservatives need to make peace with, nor should they accept the role that unaccountable bureaucrats are increasingly playing in American governance. But they should also understand that working within that system while working to dismantle aspects of it are not mutually exclusive activities.

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The rise of the regulatory state is not something conservatives need to make peace with, nor should they accept the role that unaccountable bureaucrats are increasingly playing in American governance. But they should also understand that working within that system while working to dismantle aspects of it are not mutually exclusive activities.

With all the talk of reform conservatism, this is a more limited variant of the ambitious reform efforts gaining momentum. There are two categories of such reform, and the abuse-of-power scandals proliferating throughout the Obama administration’s bureaucratic power agencies make it all the more necessary to realize the opportunity they present to conservatives seeking to protect the public from big government.

The first has to do with regulations, and Texas presents a good example. Because so much of the Obama-era Democratic regulations are poorly thought-out and destructive, it’s easy to get the impression that when the government regulates something, it will do so in a deeply stupid way. But it doesn’t have to.

In April 2010, the Washington Post ran an interesting article investigating the following question: Why did Texas escape the real-estate bust? As the Post explained:

Texas’s 3.1 million mortgage borrowers are a breed of their own among big states with big cities. Fewer than 6 percent of them are in or near foreclosure, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association; the national average is nearly 10 percent. …

Texan subprime borrowers do especially well compared with their counterparts elsewhere. The foreclosure rate among subprime borrowers in Texas, at less than 19 percent, is the lowest of any state except Alaska.

Part of the answer seemed to be restrictions on refinancing and home-equity lending:

A cash-out refinance is a mortgage taken out for a higher balance than the one on an existing loan, net of fees. Across the nation, cash-outs became ubiquitous during the mortgage boom, as skyrocketing house prices made it possible for homeowners, even those with bad credit, to use their home equity like an ATM. But not in Texas. There, cash-outs and home-equity loans cannot total more than 80 percent of a home’s appraised value. There’s a 12-day cooling-off period after an application, during which the borrower can pull out. And when a borrower refinances a mortgage, it’s illegal to get even a dollar back. Texas really means it: All these protections, and more, are in the state constitution. The Texas restrictions on mortgage borrowing date from the first days of statehood in 1845, when the constitution banned home loans.

It turns out such restrictions went a long way toward preventing homeowners from taking out the kind of loans and refinancing that increased the chances of default when the bubble burst, protecting many in Texas from suffering the same fate. It’s the kind of “smart” regulation that not only benefits the private sector but also can prevent future “dumb” regulations: the less prone to such crises states (and especially the federal government) are, the less demand there will be for the kind of “do-something” regulatory pile-ons and bailouts that follow those crises.

Texas is also, of course, a testament to the benefits of limited regulations in other areas of ownership and private property. Another part of the state’s insulation from the real-estate bubble was, as Wendell Cox explained, “the state’s liberal, market oriented land use policies. This served to help keep the price of land low while profligate lending increased demand.” Overregulated housing markets inflated prices and restricted supply. Texas got the balance just right.

So there’s “smart” regulations vs. “dumb” regulations. But the other category of this kind of reform has to do with the bureaucracy. Especially in the Obama era, policy is being made more and more by unelected bureaucrats. As the IRS scandal (and others) showed, the power and insulation from the public eye is a dangerous combination.

Conservatives have generally approached this by concentrating on the need to eliminate either bureaucratic agencies or the powers of those agencies. They should also, however, keep in mind that as long as those agencies exist, personnel is policy. Perhaps no one on the right has internalized this message more than Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

In a piece for National Review last year (still paywalled, alas), Daniel Foster wrote about McConnell’s attitude toward staffing decisions made by each party. When bureaucratic commission openings must be filled, it generally falls to the leadership. That means President Obama for the Democrats and McConnell for the Republicans. The Democrats still tend to view such job appointments as patronage positions. But McConnell has rejected the cronyism in favor of competence:

To translate his instincts into names, he brought in GOP veteran Dan Schneider. To look at Schneider’s government rap sheet — stints at the Department of Health and Human Services, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Labor Department — you’d think he was a die-cast liberal. But when I spoke with him for this story, he said he likes to think of himself as a loyal conservative sent behind enemy lines “to monitor the radicals.”

Schneider came onto McConnell’s radar via the senator’s wife, Elaine Chao. When George W. Bush appointed Chao to head his Department of Labor, Schneider became her first White House liaison, and she gave him free rein to find conservatives to fill more than 200 slots inside the department. He impressed, and, after the Obama transition, migrated into McConnell’s office, where he oversees a sort of national conservative talent search with the title “Policy Advisor and Counsel for Nominations.”

Schneider operates according to a set of five criteria for screening potential nominees first developed by E. Pendleton “Pen” James, Ronald Reagan’s director of personnel management. First, were the nominees competent in the subject matter? Second, were they philosophically compatible with Senator McConnell? Third, did they possess high character and integrity? Fourth, were they tough? Fifth, were they team players?

The result, two or three hundred appointees later, is measurable.

Of course the ultimate aim for such bureaucracies should be to get rid of them or limit their power–something McConnell also engages in, as when he spearheaded the challenge to Obama’s unconstitutional recess appointments, which resulted recently in a unanimous Supreme Court rejection of Obama’s power grab.

But conservatives can fight those fights while engaging in limited reform from within the regulatory state. They don’t have to cede ground just because they wish that ground didn’t exist.

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Obama’s Awful Poll Reflects His PR Strategy

The latest Quinnipiac poll showing Americans believe Barack Obama to be the worst post-World War II president demonstrates that, in a perverse way, Obama’s PR strategy is working. The key part of the poll, which shows Americans overall coming to the realization that Obama’s presidency has been disastrous, is that a majority consider the president to be incompetent. Where would they get that idea? From the president himself, to judge by his characteristic responses to the manifold corruption and abuse-of-power scandals emanating from his White House.

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The latest Quinnipiac poll showing Americans believe Barack Obama to be the worst post-World War II president demonstrates that, in a perverse way, Obama’s PR strategy is working. The key part of the poll, which shows Americans overall coming to the realization that Obama’s presidency has been disastrous, is that a majority consider the president to be incompetent. Where would they get that idea? From the president himself, to judge by his characteristic responses to the manifold corruption and abuse-of-power scandals emanating from his White House.

Quinnipiac writes: “American voters say 54 – 44 percent that the Obama Administration is not competent running the government. The president is paying attention to what his administration is doing, 47 percent say, while 48 percent say he does not pay enough attention.” This is, in general, the president’s own strategy at work.

Back in May, the Washington Free Beacon’s David Rutz compiled a supercut of Obama and his spokesmen claiming he learned about various scandals from the media:

The latest ugly story that the White House claims Obama only learned of from the news is the VA scandal, where veterans’ hospitals around the country have mistreated or forgotten veterans seeking medical care.

“If you mean the specific allegations that I think were reported first by your network out of Phoenix, I believe we learned about them through the reports,” said Press Secretary Jay Carney Monday. “I will double-check if that’s not the case. But that’s when we learned about them, and that’s when, as I understand it, Secretary Shinseki learned about them and immediately took the action that he has taken, including instigating his own review — or initiating his own review, but also requesting that the Inspector General investigate.”

The story about the Justice Department seizing records from the Associated Press? The news that the IRS had deliberately targeted conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status? The Fast & Furious gun-running scandal? That time the plane flew over Manhattan without authorization?

Obama learned about all of it on the news.

Obama has had to choose between two unpalatable options. Either he was aware of what he and his administration were doing, or he wasn’t. The latter is absurd and not remotely credible in some cases, but Obama sees it as preferable to the former, which would be openly admitting to the corruption the rest of the country sees unfolding practically daily.

Some attempts to absolve the president from his own presidency have been downright comical. Here, for example, was David Axelrod last year echoing conservative and libertarian critiques of the government in defense of Obama:

SCARBOROUGH: He’s saying to those at the University of Chicago’s school of politics, to students, to others, when they’re talking about looking at the IRS scandal and what an administration should or should not do.

AXELROD: Look, it’s an interesting case study because if you look at the inspector general’s report, apparently some folks down in the bureaucracy — you know we have a large government — took it upon themselves to shorthand these applications for tax-exempt status in a way that was, as I said, idiotic, and also dangerous because of the political implications. One prima facie bit of evidence that nobody political was involved in this, is that if anybody political was involved they would say: are you nuts?

Part of being president is there’s so much underneath you that you can’t know because the government is so vast.

Obama’s defenders are so desperate to avoid blame that they’ll even, as a last resort, take refuge in the idea that conservatives are right about the size and scope of the federal government. It’s true that government is so unwieldy as to insulate it from accountability and thus foster unmanageability and ultimately corruption. But this does not absolve the left. After all, Obama and his party want to continuously, recklessly expand the government even while claiming that doing so makes it impossible to govern properly.

And in this way Obama’s defenders end up indicting their hero (and themselves) anyway. The corruption they are enabling either helps them politically, as in the case of the IRS targeting Obama’s opponents, or perpetuates a fiction necessary to the liberal project, such as the Veterans Affairs scandal in which the failures of government-run health care were covered up rather than admitted while veterans died waiting for care.

Obama’s defense, then, has been incompetence. Perhaps that’s the silver lining in this poll, though also a warning: it might only be his incompetence that saves him from an even worse rating.

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One Chance to Hold the IRS Accountable?

Though the IRS and its commissioner have been on the hot seat in recent congressional hearings, there is little doubt that the agency and the Obama administration believe they can ride out the storm by stonewalling Republicans asking questions about the scandal and the missing emails that are now at the center of the controversy. But an otherwise obscure legal challenge to the tax-collecting bureaucracy may hold the key to bringing some measure of accountability to the nation’s tax collectors.

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Though the IRS and its commissioner have been on the hot seat in recent congressional hearings, there is little doubt that the agency and the Obama administration believe they can ride out the storm by stonewalling Republicans asking questions about the scandal and the missing emails that are now at the center of the controversy. But an otherwise obscure legal challenge to the tax-collecting bureaucracy may hold the key to bringing some measure of accountability to the nation’s tax collectors.

As we’ve noted numerous times here, there are still a lot of unanswered questions about how and why the IRS singled out conservative groups for scrutiny when they applied for tax-exempt status. But concern about this blatantly illegal political bias has been only compounded by the revelation that the emails of the woman at the center of the affair—department chief Lois Lerner—were lost in a mysterious computer crash. It now turns out that not only was the damaged computer hard drive recycled but that the agency also erased its own email servers. As has been pointed out repeatedly by IRS critics, taxpayers and corporations are required by law to preserve all of their communications for seven years in case they might be audited. But the IRS, a government body with nearly unlimited powers to wreck the lives of individuals that come under its scrutiny, doesn’t live by the same laws that they rigorously enforce against ordinary citizens.

But despite the suspicious nature of the missing emails and the fact that the agency cancelled the contract of the IT service provider at the same time that it lost vital information at the heart of this scandal, there seems little that critics can do about it other than to hound IRS Commissioner John Koskinen in hearings. Though his story is merely a sophisticated version of the old “dog ate my homework” excuse, Koskinen hasn’t lost his cool or cracked under the pressure. That’s due to what appears to be a thick hide and his confidence that congressional Democrats will always cover for the administration no matter how outrageous its behavior. Since Lerner has pled the Fifth Amendment in her attempt to avoid answering questions and Attorney General Eric Holder will never launch a genuine investigation of this affair or appoint a special prosecutor, it doesn’t seem like the angry Republicans can do much but to huff and puff at Koskinen or any other hapless IRS official that attempts to tell the same lame story he’s been trying to sell Congress.

But, as I noted last month, there appears to be one hope, albeit a slim one, for some measure of accountability about the IRS’s unconstitutional behavior: a lawsuit by a small pro-Israel group that was told by agency employees that its application for non-profit status was being scrutinized because of its opposition to the Obama administration’s foreign policy.

After years of stonewalling the case, the IRS was dealt a staggering legal setback last month when a federal judge ordered that the agency must answer the lawsuit. That response is due today. But the events of the last few weeks in which we have learned of the disappearance of Lerner’s emails makes it all the more interesting since as the defendant in the case, the IRS had the obligation to preserve all records relating to the alleged discrimination against Z Street. Since Lerner was the official supervising those who were dealing with Z Street during this period, that makes the missing evidence even more crucial. Moreover, as the plaintiffs pursue their case they will have the ability to compel IRS officials to testify as to their practices and produce all records. If they don’t that will only strengthen Z Street’s case.

Though Congress may not be able to do more than rail at Koskinen and the IRS, the Z Street case will not only open up a window on their behavior but, as the Wall Street Journal editorial page wrote earlier this week:

Attorney General Eric Holder won’t name a special prosecutor, but there’s still plenty of room for the judge in the Z Street case to force the IRS to explain and answer for its “willful spoliation” of email evidence.

The spectacle of a ruthless tax agency acting illegally and with seeming impunity undermines the rule of law and faith in our democratic system. And since neither Democrats nor their cheering section in the media appear willing to rise up and pressure the administration to appoint a prosecutor who will investigate these extremely suspicious coincidences and missing evidence (which would have liberals screaming for impeachment if the two sides were reversed and a Republican administration behaved in this manner), not much may happen to anyone in the scandal and the agency may escape accountability. But the Z Street suit has the potential to reveal more about this scandal than all the committees in Congress may ever be able to produce.

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The IRS Scandal and Media Bias

During his appearance on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Bloomberg’s Mark Halperin offered this observation:

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During his appearance on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Bloomberg’s Mark Halperin offered this observation:

Because when any government agency, particularly one as powerful as the IRS, engages in something that even people sympathetic to the administration looks weird and suspicious, it’s incumbent upon all of the national media to aggressively ask more questions. The Republicans in Congress are asking questions. I think with a different administration, one that was a Republican administration, this story would be a national obsession. And instead, it’s getting coverage here and a few other places. But it deserves a lot more questions.

It certainly does, and Mr. Halperin deserves credit (as does host Joe Scarborough) for saying so.

Here’s a thought experiment. Assume during the George W. Bush administration the IRS had targeted MoveOn.org, Planned Parenthood, the Center for American Progress, and a slew of other liberal groups. Assume, too, that no conservative groups were the subject of harassment and intimidation. And just for the fun of it, assume that press secretary Ari Fleischer had misled the press and the public by saying the scandal was confined to two rogue IRS agents in Cincinnati and that President Bush had declared that there was “not even a smidgen of corruption” that had occurred.

Let’s go a step further. Assume that the IRS Commissioner, in testifying before Congress, admitted that the emails of the person at the heart of the abuse of power scandal were gone, that the backup tapes have been erased and that her hard drive was destroyed. For good measure, assume that the person who was intimately involved in targeting liberal groups took the Fifth Amendment.

Given all this, boys and girls, do you think the elite media–the New York Times, Washington Post, The News Hour, and the news networks for ABC, CBS, NBC, and CNN–would pay much attention to it?

Answer: They wouldn’t just cover the story; they would fixate on it. It would be a crazed obsession. Journalists up and down the Acela Corridor would be experiencing dangerously rapid pulse rates. The gleam in their eye and the spring in their step would be impossible to miss. You couldn’t escape the coverage even if you wanted to. The story would sear itself into your imagination.

It’s true enough that one could focus on media bias every day between now and the Second Coming if one were so inclined. But rarely is the bias as transparent, and the double standard as glaring, as it is during the coverage of scandals. That doesn’t mean that here and there elite journalists don’t focus attention on liberal scandals. But for a host of complicated political and cultural reasons, the press as a general matter draws much greater energy and purposefulness from scandals involving Republican presidents than Democratic presidents. Even during the Lewinsky affair and the criminal cover up of it, there’s no way a Republican White House could have gotten away with the brutal tactics used against the independent counsel. Can you imagine if the Nixon White House had treated Archibald Cox like the Clinton White House treated Kenneth Starr? The press simply would not have allowed it. (See correction below.)

It’s too bad that only a few elite journalists like Mr. Halperin will admit the existence of the double standard; and worse still that knowing of it, nothing much will change. This is yet another case of “motivated perception.” The press can see precisely the same scandal and interpret it in completely different ways, depending on whether at the center of the scandal is a liberal or a conservative administration. And here’s the thing: many journalists really and truly believe they are impartial. Which is but only one reason why we live in an era when American’s trust of the media is at an all-time low.

Correction:

Of course Richard Nixon had Cox fired on October 20, 1973, in what became known as the “Saturday Night Massacre.” The reference was a sloppy historical oversight on my part, and I apologize for it. (Leon Jaworski was the special prosecutor who replaced Cox; he was never fired.) What makes my error even more inexcusable is that just the other day I began to re-read a fine book, Nixon: An Oral History of His Presidencyand chapter 24, “The Saturday Night Massacre,” focuses exclusively on the Cox firing.

I’d only add that what happened to Cox actually reinforces my broader point, which is that the press made Nixon pay a fearsome price for firing him. Alexander Haig, then Nixon’s chief of staff, described the reaction as a “firestorm.” Robert Bork, then-Solicitor General and the individual who carried out Nixon’s order, said, “I knew that there would be a lot of trouble about the firing but I didn’t anticipate the intensity of it.” And Raymond Price, chief speechwriter for Nixon, said, “it was as if the world were coming to an end.”

This is how NBC’s John Chancellor began his broadcast that night:

Good evening. The country tonight is in the midst of what may be the most serious Constitutional crisis in its history. The President has fired the special Watergate prosecutor, Archibald Cox. Because of the President’s action, the attorney general has resigned. Elliott Richardson has quit, saying he cannot carry out Mr. Nixon’s instructions. Richardson’s deputy, William Ruckelshaus, has been fired.

Ruckelshaus refused, in a moment of Constitutional drama, to obey a presidential order to fire the special Watergate prosecutor. And half an hour after the special Watergate prosecutor had been fired, agents of the FBI, acting at the direction of the White House, sealed off the offices of the special prosecutor, the offices of the attorney general and the offices of the deputy attorney general.

All of this adds up to a totally unprecedented situation, a grave and profound crisis in which the President has set himself against his own attorney general and the Department of Justice. Nothing like this has ever happened before.

The reaction to the firing of Mr. Cox shook the foundation of the Nixon presidency.

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JFK and the Wrecking of the Presidency

The recent Obama administration scandals, especially those involving the IRS and Veterans Affairs, have highlighted just how adversarial a relationship has developed between the ruling and the ruled. Last night’s oversight hearing on the IRS scandal had some fireworks, but the most telling exchange went mostly unnoticed. It was between Rep. Kerry Bentivolio, Republican of Michigan, and new IRS Commissioner John Koskinen.

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The recent Obama administration scandals, especially those involving the IRS and Veterans Affairs, have highlighted just how adversarial a relationship has developed between the ruling and the ruled. Last night’s oversight hearing on the IRS scandal had some fireworks, but the most telling exchange went mostly unnoticed. It was between Rep. Kerry Bentivolio, Republican of Michigan, and new IRS Commissioner John Koskinen.

Here’s the relevant exchange:

Bentivolio: My question is about self-interest. Do you believe that employees of the IRS can remain objective when analyzing the tax implications of groups and people that want them to lose their jobs?

Koskinen: I think so. I think that they’re professionals, they’re dedicated to–

Bentivolio: I have no doubt in their professionalism. I’m not asking you about that. I’m asking you about their neutrality and how it affects their objectivity. Do you believe that any person can sustain objectivity toward someone that they perceive as a threat to their livelihood?

In fact this is at the center of the scandal with the IRS and others. In recent months, the rise of the “government class” has received its due notice. Jonah Goldberg had an excellent column this week on the “naked self-interest of the government-worker class,” which gets at why this public airing of grievances is so uncomfortable for Democrats. Mark Steyn went further in warning that “when the supposedly impartial civil service uses those powers in the service of the ruling party” we are witnessing something akin to the “merger of party and state.” Others have noted, correctly, that the American presidency has become a bit royal for a republic–though without the nonpartisan class and grace of the queen.

But not nearly enough attention is being paid to the man who did more to bring this about than perhaps any other president: Jack Kennedy.

Kennedy did this in two ways, one of substance and the other of style. The substance was his executive order permitting the unionization of federal workers. It was not the first time public employees were allowed to unionize, but it was groundbreaking at the federal level and it opened the floodgates. In many ways, state and local public unions are more a drag on the budgets that dictate Americans’ tax bills. But federal unions have an important advantage: power.

The power of the Department of Veterans Affairs to stymie reforms goes much further than unionization. But that’s part of it. When the VA scandal hit, there were many suggestions on how to begin to put the pieces back together. The least surprising was reported by the Hill in late May: “The Veterans Affairs healthcare scandal can be solved by giving the department more money, a top federal employees union said Thursday.”

But where was all the money going that was supposed to be helping veterans in the first place? To the unions, as the Wall Street Journal’s Kimberley Strassel pointed out:

Manhattan Institute scholar Diana Furchtgott-Roth recently detailed Office of Personnel Management numbers obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by Rep. Phil Gingrey (R., Ga.). On May 25, Ms. Furchtgott-Roth reported on MarketWatch that the VA in 2012 paid 258 employees to be 100% “full-time,” receiving full pay and benefits to do only union work. Seventeen had six-figure salaries, up to $132,000. According to the Office of Personnel Management, the VA paid for 988,000 hours of “official” time in fiscal 2011, a 23% increase from 2010.

Moreover, as Sens. Rob Portman (R., Ohio) and Tom Coburn (R., Okla.) noted in a 2013 letter to Mr. Shinseki, the vast majority of these “official” timers were nurses, instrument technicians pharmacists, dental assistants and therapists, who were being paid to do union work even as the VA tried to fill hundreds of jobs and paid overtime to other staff.

Federal union leaders were shaking down taxpayers to line their pockets with money that was intended to treat veterans. The only appropriate response from federal union leaders to this revelation should have been pure, unadulterated, soul-gripping shame. Their response instead was to ask for more money.

The style with which Kennedy helped wreck the presidency was in its self-conscious recreation of a palace and its royal court. Probably the best to chronicle this was Sally Bedell Smith. In her book on the Kennedys in the White House, her cast of characters is listed under the heading “The Kennedy Court.” Here’s her description of the royal atmosphere:

The Kennedys may have been Democrats, full of compassion for the poor and dispossessed, but the image of Jack and Jackie as king and queen surrounded by their court had occurred to many people familiar with the administration. The British political philosopher and formidable Oxford don Isaiah Berlin—a guest at several private White House dinners—saw the Kennedys as “Bonapartist,” finding parallels in Napoleon’s brothers who, like Robert F. Kennedy as attorney general and Edward M. Kennedy as U.S. senator, held responsible positions in the government. …

The columnist Stewart Alsop complained after one year of the Kennedy administration, “The place is lousy with courtiers and ladies in waiting—actual or would be.” As with court life in earlier centuries, the Kennedy entourage made a stately progress: from the White House to expensive homes in the Virginia hunt country, to Palm Beach, Hyannis Port, and Newport—all playgrounds for the rich and privileged. “Jackie wanted to do Versailles in America,” said Oleg Cassini, her official dress designer and self-described “de facto courtier close to the king and queen.” “She said this many times,” Cassini added.

What JFK did, then, was to lay the foundation for a federal government with an explicitly royalist identity and a unionized government class with job security but no accountability, and who had the power to disrupt the lives and the rights of the citizens who had other ideas about American democracy. There has been a tendency to romanticize the Kennedy presidency, not just by liberals who miss the monarchical elitism but by conservatives who appreciate Kennedy’s tax cutting and internationalist foreign policy. The nostalgia is misplaced, for the Kennedy presidency was damaging to the American project and we are still paying for it today.

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Ryan to IRS Commissioner: “This is Unbelievable. … Nobody Believes You.”

In a hearing about the IRS targeting of conservative groups, Representative Paul Ryan–during his exchange with IRS Commission John Koskinen–leveled a devastating criticism of Koskinen, essentially accusing him of being a liar. Mr. Ryan runs through the layers of deception, and pattern of abuse, we’re seen from the IRS so far, which now includes the fantastic claim that it has lost ex-IRS official Lois Lerner’s hard drive with emails relevant to the (illegal) audits of conservative groups. Lois Lerner’s crashed hard drive has been recycled, we’re now being told. (The Internal Revenue Service also revealed earlier this week that it can’t produce emails from six more employees involved in the targeting of conservative groups, including from Nikole Flax, the chief of staff to former IRS commissioner Steven Miller, who was fired in the wake of the targeting scandal.)

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In a hearing about the IRS targeting of conservative groups, Representative Paul Ryan–during his exchange with IRS Commission John Koskinen–leveled a devastating criticism of Koskinen, essentially accusing him of being a liar. Mr. Ryan runs through the layers of deception, and pattern of abuse, we’re seen from the IRS so far, which now includes the fantastic claim that it has lost ex-IRS official Lois Lerner’s hard drive with emails relevant to the (illegal) audits of conservative groups. Lois Lerner’s crashed hard drive has been recycled, we’re now being told. (The Internal Revenue Service also revealed earlier this week that it can’t produce emails from six more employees involved in the targeting of conservative groups, including from Nikole Flax, the chief of staff to former IRS commissioner Steven Miller, who was fired in the wake of the targeting scandal.)

And here’s Ryan’s colleague, Kevin Brady, grilling Mr. Koskinen, saying this (h/t: HotAir.com):

Mr. Commissioner, why, at this point, why should anyone believe you? The IRS denied for two years targeting of Americans based on their political beliefs. That wasn’t the truth. They said it was a few rogue agents in Cincinnati. That wasn’t the truth. You said you were targeting liberal organizations. That wasn’t the truth. Then you assured us you would provide us all the emails in May and that wasn’t the truth. And today, you’re telling us out of thousands of IRS computers, the one that lost the emails was a person of interest in an ongoing congressional investigation. And that is not the truth either. This is the most corrupt and deceitful IRS in [American] history.

It’s fairly obvious, I think, that what has occurred is the destruction of evidence related to a congressional investigation about the abuse of power of one of the two most powerful agencies in government. Daniel Henninger of the Wall Street Journal makes the case that “The IRS tea-party audit story isn’t Watergate; it’s worse than Watergate. The Watergate break-in was the professionals of the party in power going after the party professionals of the party out of power. The IRS scandal is the party in power going after the most average Americans imaginable.”

Whether it turns out to be worse than Watergate is impossible to know at this point. But it is bad enough. One question–not the only one, but an important one–is whether and how deep this scandal reaches into the rest of the Obama administration, including the Obama White House.

Inquiring minds want to know.

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Nothing “Reasonable” About IRS Cock-and-Bull Computer Story

Yesterday, new White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest characterized the Internal Revenue Service’s claim that all of Lois Lerner’s emails were lost as “entirely reasonable.” Adopting the same combative tone that made his predecessor Jay Carney an embarrassment to the president, Earnest declared that any questions about why it is that the IRS suddenly finds itself unable to comply with requests from Congress for this information were “not particularly believable” and sarcastically asked if anyone had ever heard of a computer crash.

Of course, as our John Steele Gordon noted on Sunday, Earnest’s declaration that the loss of the email is “a fact,” is almost certainly not true. Investigators should be able to find the emails on the agency’s server. That is a “fact” that IRS Commissioner John Koskinen actually admitted to earlier in the year when testifying before Congress when he promised to comply with requests for these communications and other information that might shed some light on what lay behind Lerner’s orders to her staff to target Tea Party and other conservative groups for special scrutiny.

Koskinen will again be on the hot seat next week when he is hauled before two House committees to explain why he thinks he can get away with a classic “dog ate my homework excuse” instead of producing the emails. But the agency’s decision to announce that a mysterious computer crash devoured all of Lerner’s work emails during a crucial two year period under investigation in a Friday afternoon news dump was more than just an effort to bury the story. The administration must understand that this development is bound to fuel continuing interest in a story they thought was largely finished. But the highly suspicious disappearance of the emails will do more than just raise Watergate comparisons. You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to understand that the possible destruction of evidence that might link the IRS’ illegal behavior to other branches of the government leaves open the possibility that this scandal may just be getting started.

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Yesterday, new White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest characterized the Internal Revenue Service’s claim that all of Lois Lerner’s emails were lost as “entirely reasonable.” Adopting the same combative tone that made his predecessor Jay Carney an embarrassment to the president, Earnest declared that any questions about why it is that the IRS suddenly finds itself unable to comply with requests from Congress for this information were “not particularly believable” and sarcastically asked if anyone had ever heard of a computer crash.

Of course, as our John Steele Gordon noted on Sunday, Earnest’s declaration that the loss of the email is “a fact,” is almost certainly not true. Investigators should be able to find the emails on the agency’s server. That is a “fact” that IRS Commissioner John Koskinen actually admitted to earlier in the year when testifying before Congress when he promised to comply with requests for these communications and other information that might shed some light on what lay behind Lerner’s orders to her staff to target Tea Party and other conservative groups for special scrutiny.

Koskinen will again be on the hot seat next week when he is hauled before two House committees to explain why he thinks he can get away with a classic “dog ate my homework excuse” instead of producing the emails. But the agency’s decision to announce that a mysterious computer crash devoured all of Lerner’s work emails during a crucial two year period under investigation in a Friday afternoon news dump was more than just an effort to bury the story. The administration must understand that this development is bound to fuel continuing interest in a story they thought was largely finished. But the highly suspicious disappearance of the emails will do more than just raise Watergate comparisons. You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to understand that the possible destruction of evidence that might link the IRS’ illegal behavior to other branches of the government leaves open the possibility that this scandal may just be getting started.

Earnest’s confidence that he could brazenly dismiss questions about Lerner’s emails stems from the administration’s belief that the IRS story has fundamentally changed in the last year. Initially, there was bipartisan outrage over the agency’s clearly outrageous and politically motivated practices. But within weeks, the media moved on and the only engine riving the story became the efforts of House Republicans like Rep. Darrell Issa, whose awkward investigatory style was easy to dismiss as partisan hackwork. The foolish confrontation between Issa and Democrat Elijah Cummings aided the efforts of the White House and its liberal media cheerleaders to claim that the entire issue was a “phony scandal” rather than a fundamental threat to the rule of law as even some liberals had agreed when the story first broke.

Comparisons to Watergate are always going to fall short and there is a vast difference between the infamous erasure of 18 minutes of White House tape recordings by Richard Nixon’s secretary and whatever it was that happened to Lois Lerner’s computer. But obstruction of justice is not a small thing especially when its impact is to effectively shut down a Congressional probe aimed at finding out why exactly Lerner choose to single out Tea Partiers and conservatives. It may be that there is nothing of interest in her emails, or at least nothing that connects anyone else in the administration to what happened at the IRS. But until we see those communications, it is hardly unreasonable for the president’s critics to wonder aloud at the amazing coincidence that led the supposedly non-partisan tax agency to give the business to Obama’s foes.

Were this really a phony scandal with, as the White House insists, nothing that connected high ranking figures to what was going on at the IRS, then it would behoove the administration to get all the information out on this question as soon as possible. Instead, the government has stalled Congress for a year only to then come up with an obviously lame and almost certainly false excuse about a single hard drive crash gobbling up all those emails.

It doesn’t take much imagination to ponder to what the response of Democrats and liberal organs like the New York Times would be if, instead of President Obama and his acolytes, it were George W. Bush’s staffers that were claiming that it was “reasonable” that information had merely vanished in a cloud of Internet smoke. We don’t need latter-day heroic Woodwards and Bernsteins to procure a new Deep Throat to come up with the answers to the obvious questions that the IRS’ cock-and-bull story raises. We just need a run-of-the-mill free press dedicated to ferreting out the truth about a government scandal and some honest Democrats prepared to join with Republicans in asking uncomfortable questions rather than covering for their party’s leaders. Any takers?

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Are Lois Lerner’s Emails Really Lost?

I wrote on Friday how the IRS, after a full year of stonewalling, sent a letter to Dave Camp, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, saying that a vast trove of emails between Lois Lerner and government agencies outside the IRS, including the White House, had been lost thanks to a hard drive crash on her computer. Friday afternoons, of course, are when people who want something to go unnoticed make a public announcement about it.

This did not go unnoticed, however. As you can see from the TaxProfBlog, which has been covering the unfolding IRS scandal like a glove, all the major news outlets ran stories on it, even such liberal bastions as ABC News and the Huffington Post. Its similarity to the event that radically shifted public opinion about Watergate—the conveniently missing 18 1/2 minutes of tape—was just too strong. However, the New York Times, ever increasingly the public-relations arm of the Obama administration, has run nothing whatever in the print editions and, indeed, the only mention of it whatsoever was on a blog on the Times website that quotes what other op-ed pages are saying, a one-paragraph overview of the conservative Washington Examiner’s editorial. The Washington Post did not do a story of its own, settling for AP coverage about a potentially huge story taking place in its own backyard. Both of these legendary American newspapers are going to be severely embarrassed if this turns into a major scandal, as it well may.

The reason it may is because there are very good reasons to doubt the idea that these emails are irretrievably lost due to a simple crash of a personal computer’s hard drive.  For one thing, downloading an email from an email server does not cause the email to be deleted from the server itself. And a lawyer in the Department of Justice, who understandably wishes to be anonymous, reports that government email servers are automatically backed up every night. So both Lerner’s computer and the email server would have had to crash for these emails to have been lost. That would be some coincidence.

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I wrote on Friday how the IRS, after a full year of stonewalling, sent a letter to Dave Camp, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, saying that a vast trove of emails between Lois Lerner and government agencies outside the IRS, including the White House, had been lost thanks to a hard drive crash on her computer. Friday afternoons, of course, are when people who want something to go unnoticed make a public announcement about it.

This did not go unnoticed, however. As you can see from the TaxProfBlog, which has been covering the unfolding IRS scandal like a glove, all the major news outlets ran stories on it, even such liberal bastions as ABC News and the Huffington Post. Its similarity to the event that radically shifted public opinion about Watergate—the conveniently missing 18 1/2 minutes of tape—was just too strong. However, the New York Times, ever increasingly the public-relations arm of the Obama administration, has run nothing whatever in the print editions and, indeed, the only mention of it whatsoever was on a blog on the Times website that quotes what other op-ed pages are saying, a one-paragraph overview of the conservative Washington Examiner’s editorial. The Washington Post did not do a story of its own, settling for AP coverage about a potentially huge story taking place in its own backyard. Both of these legendary American newspapers are going to be severely embarrassed if this turns into a major scandal, as it well may.

The reason it may is because there are very good reasons to doubt the idea that these emails are irretrievably lost due to a simple crash of a personal computer’s hard drive.  For one thing, downloading an email from an email server does not cause the email to be deleted from the server itself. And a lawyer in the Department of Justice, who understandably wishes to be anonymous, reports that government email servers are automatically backed up every night. So both Lerner’s computer and the email server would have had to crash for these emails to have been lost. That would be some coincidence.

John Hinderaker at Power Line has a great deal of experience in accessing emails in the course of legal discovery. He’s blunt: “The Obama administration is lying, and lying in a remarkably transparent way.” He points out that even if the email server were erased after a period of time, the IRS has elaborate protocols for the permanent storage of all electronic communications. Hinderaker also notes that even if a hard drive crashes, the information stored on it can usually be recovered. He politely offers to help:

One more thing: if it were true that the only copies of many thousands of emails existed on Lois Lerner’s desktop computer–which is certainly not true–and that computer’s hard drive crashed in 2011, the emails would in all probability be recoverable. Even if Lerner threw her computer into a lake, which has been known to happen. One of the world’s most famous data recovery firms is located here in the Twin Cities, and I would be happy to send Barack Obama the name and phone number of a person who, in all likelihood, could recover Lerner’s “lost” emails from her supposedly crashed hard drive. Even if the computer has been lying at the bottom of a lake since 2011.

Fox and Friends this morning reported that in addition to nightly email backups and permanent storage on another medium, IRS regulations require individuals to make paper backups of anything that falls under the rubric of a “federal record.”

The administration is desperately hoping that by making this public on a summer Friday afternoon, it will all have blown over by Monday morning, especially with the onrush of other news stories, such as the gathering debacle in Iraq, and the latter-day children’s crusade on our southern border. I doubt that will happen. I think enough elements of the media smell blood. If the Obama administration is caught in a bald-faced lie here, its political support might well collapse, just as Nixon’s did in the fall of 1973. That would sell a lot of newspapers.

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Like Jimmy Carter? How About Like Richard Nixon?

Many people think that Barack Obama’s presidency, with his inept, if not disastrous foreign policy, and his ineffectual or counterproductive domestic programs can be aptly compared with Jimmy Carter’s. When Carter ran for reelection in 1980, it should be remembered, he carried fewer states than had Herbert Hoover in 1932.

Now, it seems, it’s worse. Today, House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp issued a press release announcing that the IRS claims to have lost all the emails that Lois Lerner sent to or received from government agencies, including the White House, between January 2009 and April 2011.  They have only her internal emails (H/T Instapundit). How very convenient.

Camp, as you can well imagine, is not amused:

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Many people think that Barack Obama’s presidency, with his inept, if not disastrous foreign policy, and his ineffectual or counterproductive domestic programs can be aptly compared with Jimmy Carter’s. When Carter ran for reelection in 1980, it should be remembered, he carried fewer states than had Herbert Hoover in 1932.

Now, it seems, it’s worse. Today, House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp issued a press release announcing that the IRS claims to have lost all the emails that Lois Lerner sent to or received from government agencies, including the White House, between January 2009 and April 2011.  They have only her internal emails (H/T Instapundit). How very convenient.

Camp, as you can well imagine, is not amused:

The fact that I am just learning about this, over a year into the investigation, is completely unacceptable and now calls into question the credibility of the IRS’s response to Congressional inquiries.  There needs to be an immediate investigation and forensic audit by Department of Justice as well as the Inspector General.

Just a short time ago, Commissioner Koskinen promised to produce all Lerner documents.  It appears now that was an empty promise.  Frankly, these are the critical years of the targeting of conservative groups that could explain who knew what when, and what, if any, coordination there was between agencies.  Instead, because of this loss of documents, we are conveniently left to believe that Lois Lerner acted alone.

So it would seem that not only does the Obama administration exhibit the worst attributes of the Carter administration, it also exhibits the worst attributes of the Nixon administration. No one believed Nixon’s explanation for the infamous missing 18 1/2 minutes of oval office tapes. I doubt many will believe that this is an accident too.

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Phony Scandal? Courts Open Window on the IRS’s Political Litmus Tests

Interest in the Internal Revenue Service’s outrageous practice of subjecting politically conservative groups to discriminatory treatment has died down a bit since the revelations about this scandal first hit the news a year ago. But a court decision that was handed down earlier this week about a similar instance of potential government misconduct may shed more light on the way the Tea Party and other right-wing organizations were given the business by Lois Lerner and the rest of what appears to be a highly politicized bureaucracy at the heart of our tax collection system.

On Tuesday, Federal Judge Ketanje Brown Jackson issued the first substantive ruling in any suit that challenged the IRS’s pose of political neutrality under the Obama administration. The case concerns Z Street, a Philadelphia area-based pro-Israel organization that filed for tax-exempt status in December 2009 because of its role in educating the public about Israel and the Middle East conflict. The group’s founder Lori Lowenthal Marcus wrote in the Jewish Press this week about what followed:

On July 19, 2010, when counsel for Z STREET spoke with the IRS agent to whom the organization’s application had been assigned, that agent said that a determination on Z STREET’s application may be further delayed because the IRS gave “special scrutiny” to organizations connected to Israel and especially to those whose views “contradict those of the administration’s.”

Z Street subsequently sued the government and rightly argued that its constitutional rights had been violated because of the “viewpoint discrimination” that the IRS agent had openly displayed. Now after years of delays, Judge Jackson has ruled that by asserting that Z Street had no right to sue, the government had tried to “transform a lawsuit that clearly challenges the constitutionality of the process … into a dispute over tax liability.” She similarly dismissed the government’s claims of sovereign immunity.

What has this got to do with the Tea Party and its complaints? Plenty.

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Interest in the Internal Revenue Service’s outrageous practice of subjecting politically conservative groups to discriminatory treatment has died down a bit since the revelations about this scandal first hit the news a year ago. But a court decision that was handed down earlier this week about a similar instance of potential government misconduct may shed more light on the way the Tea Party and other right-wing organizations were given the business by Lois Lerner and the rest of what appears to be a highly politicized bureaucracy at the heart of our tax collection system.

On Tuesday, Federal Judge Ketanje Brown Jackson issued the first substantive ruling in any suit that challenged the IRS’s pose of political neutrality under the Obama administration. The case concerns Z Street, a Philadelphia area-based pro-Israel organization that filed for tax-exempt status in December 2009 because of its role in educating the public about Israel and the Middle East conflict. The group’s founder Lori Lowenthal Marcus wrote in the Jewish Press this week about what followed:

On July 19, 2010, when counsel for Z STREET spoke with the IRS agent to whom the organization’s application had been assigned, that agent said that a determination on Z STREET’s application may be further delayed because the IRS gave “special scrutiny” to organizations connected to Israel and especially to those whose views “contradict those of the administration’s.”

Z Street subsequently sued the government and rightly argued that its constitutional rights had been violated because of the “viewpoint discrimination” that the IRS agent had openly displayed. Now after years of delays, Judge Jackson has ruled that by asserting that Z Street had no right to sue, the government had tried to “transform a lawsuit that clearly challenges the constitutionality of the process … into a dispute over tax liability.” She similarly dismissed the government’s claims of sovereign immunity.

What has this got to do with the Tea Party and its complaints? Plenty.

As the Wall Street Journal editorial page noted yesterday:

This ruling will force the IRS to open its books on the procedures it used and decisions it made reviewing Z Street’s tax-exempt application, procedures it has tried to keep shrouded. As the case proceeds, Z Street’s attorneys can seek depositions from many who have been part of the larger attempt to sit on similar applications by other conservative groups.

In other words, this case may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back of the IRS’s politically prejudicial policies. If an IRS agent can reject or stall a pro-Israel group’s application on the grounds that “these cases are being sent to a special unit in the D.C. office to determine whether the organization’s activities contradict the Administration’s public policies,” then no group, no matter what its political orientation or cause is safe from being subjected to a political litmus test designed by any administration of either political party.

Z Street’s Marcus deserves praise for having the guts to persist in her challenge to the government for years even though the media had little interest in publicizing what appeared to be an outrageous example of how the IRS had become politicized under the Obama presidency. Last year Marcus learned she wasn’t alone when the news about the Tea Party broke. Now, as her legal process unfolds, Americans may get a better idea about how broken the system has become.

Using the IRS to punish political foes is blatantly illegal. If, as we suspect, the Z Street case reveals the sort of internal email traffic that will reveal how widespread this practice has become in the last five years, perhaps even a liberal mainstream press that still thinks the problems at the IRS are a “phony scandal” will start to pay attention.

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Absentee President Is Bad for Veterans’ Health … And the Country’s

What’s the difference between the growing scandal about the mistreatment of patients at Veterans Administration hospitals and previous Obama administration problems at the IRS, the Justice Department (“Fast and Furious” and spying on the press), and the State Department (Benghazi)? The answer is that rather than members of Congress and the press dividing along partisan lines in their discussions of the outrages at the VA, there is a bipartisan consensus that the business-as-usual atmosphere at the agency that has allowed abuses to go on for years despite public warnings of trouble must end. Democrats and Republicans competed with each other to express anger at Secretary Eric Shinseki at his failure to either detect or halt the abuse of veterans needing medical care. That’s a positive development since the focus of our public officials on the affairs of government should always be on correcting misbehavior whether or not someone’s political ox is being gored.

But there is one thing about the VA scandal that is similar to past administration problems. Despite Shinseki’s poor performance in his office—he’s been head of the VA since the president took office, meaning that he’s presided over years of patient problems—up until the scandal completely blew up there was no sign of any displeasure about him from the White House. And even once it became clear that he had utterly failed to deal with these problems and had seemed to have little idea of how to even spin this disaster—as yesterday’s Senate hearings made clear—his job appeared to be safe.

As with everything else that is bad that goes on in Washington in the age of Obama, the VA scandal appears to be something that the president just reads about in the newspapers. Like the illegal discrimination against conservative groups at the IRS and the Justice Department’s spying practices and, most memorably, the mismanagement and incompetence at the Department of Health and Human Services during the ObamaCare rollout, the president’s management style is absentee and often downright uninterested in performance. Rather than react to criticism of his administration by cleaning house when necessary, his instinct—even on issues like the VA where partisanship is not a factor—is to hunker down and stonewall. While the focus on Obama’s efforts to expand the reach of government power and to downgrade our alliances with friends rightly gets most of the attention from critics, the VA scandal and the slow and incoherent response from the White House demonstrates that the president’s inability to govern effectively is potentially as dangerous as his misconceptions about the purpose of government or American power.

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What’s the difference between the growing scandal about the mistreatment of patients at Veterans Administration hospitals and previous Obama administration problems at the IRS, the Justice Department (“Fast and Furious” and spying on the press), and the State Department (Benghazi)? The answer is that rather than members of Congress and the press dividing along partisan lines in their discussions of the outrages at the VA, there is a bipartisan consensus that the business-as-usual atmosphere at the agency that has allowed abuses to go on for years despite public warnings of trouble must end. Democrats and Republicans competed with each other to express anger at Secretary Eric Shinseki at his failure to either detect or halt the abuse of veterans needing medical care. That’s a positive development since the focus of our public officials on the affairs of government should always be on correcting misbehavior whether or not someone’s political ox is being gored.

But there is one thing about the VA scandal that is similar to past administration problems. Despite Shinseki’s poor performance in his office—he’s been head of the VA since the president took office, meaning that he’s presided over years of patient problems—up until the scandal completely blew up there was no sign of any displeasure about him from the White House. And even once it became clear that he had utterly failed to deal with these problems and had seemed to have little idea of how to even spin this disaster—as yesterday’s Senate hearings made clear—his job appeared to be safe.

As with everything else that is bad that goes on in Washington in the age of Obama, the VA scandal appears to be something that the president just reads about in the newspapers. Like the illegal discrimination against conservative groups at the IRS and the Justice Department’s spying practices and, most memorably, the mismanagement and incompetence at the Department of Health and Human Services during the ObamaCare rollout, the president’s management style is absentee and often downright uninterested in performance. Rather than react to criticism of his administration by cleaning house when necessary, his instinct—even on issues like the VA where partisanship is not a factor—is to hunker down and stonewall. While the focus on Obama’s efforts to expand the reach of government power and to downgrade our alliances with friends rightly gets most of the attention from critics, the VA scandal and the slow and incoherent response from the White House demonstrates that the president’s inability to govern effectively is potentially as dangerous as his misconceptions about the purpose of government or American power.

Judging by the statements of both Shinseki and White House chief of staff Dennis McDonough yesterday, this administration seems still to be in a state of denial about the potential implications of the problems of the VA. Splitting hairs on the question of whether the veterans who were kept waiting endlessly for medical services died as a result of the delays or some other reason isn’t the best way to demonstrate concern or a sense of urgency about the problem. Shinseki came across at his Senate hearing as a middle manager with a flatline personality unable to muster much emotion even when he was claiming to be “mad as hell” about the scandal. Both he and McDonough—who was strongly pressed on the issue by CNN’s Jake Tapper—were in denial about the fact that they had ignored complaints and warnings on these abuses for years until it blew up in their faces.

But the point here isn’t so much about the outrageous behavior at the VA which—like the IRS scandal—can’t be blamed on a rogue regional office but is part of a culture of corruption that appears to be systemic. Just as the administration’s reflex action on the IRS, Benghazi, Fast and Furious, and any other contentious issue you can think of, the administration’s instinct here is to obfuscate and cover up. The standard practice is to hide the truth no matter what the cause of concern. And even when the public is informed of the problem, the administration goes into its normal damage-control routine that centers on minimizing the damage to them rather than to the public.

Moreover, President Obama’s instinct even on non-partisan problems is to resist making changes in his administration. It is almost as if he thinks it is beneath his dignity to respond to public outrage and that damaged Cabinet officials must keep their jobs in spite of justified calls for their removal rather than because of them.

We can expect that Shinseki will eventually be carefully removed once the furor over the VA dies down much in the same manner of HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. But by then the damage will have been done, both to ill veterans and to the public’s confidence in their government. Having an absentee president more interested in demonstrating his contempt for critics and establishing that he can’t be pressured is bad for the health of our former soldiers as well as for the republic they bled to defend.

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Both Parties Face Traps on Benghazi, IRS

A year ago, as the news of the IRS scandal was breaking and the fallout from Benghazi was also becoming better known, Democrats were on the defensive about possible misconduct by the administration. A year later, their panic has subsided. By steadfastly denigrating the very idea that these scandals are, in fact, scandals, the administration, its political allies, and its cheerleaders in the media have begun to see issues like Benghazi as a battle cry for their base as much as it is for the Republicans. Far from worrying about the impact of investigations into the effort to target conservative groups by the IRS or what happened in Benghazi and its aftermath, liberals are cheered by the decision by the House GOP caucus to embrace these issues.

The conceit of the Democrats’ approach is one that is shared by many fearful conservatives. They think that what is being depicted as an obsessive pursuit of either minor wrongdoing or non-scandals will turn the Republican Party into a laughingstock in much the same manner that the government shutdown did. Since they take it as a given that there is no substance to the accusations of a cover up about government actions either before or after Benghazi or that the IRS controversy involved anything but overzealous bureaucrats, they believe the deeper the GOP dives into these investigations the more Democrats will benefit.

There is some substance to these concerns, since many in the GOP caucus have shown themselves to be incapable of conducting sober investigations or being able to avoid succumbing to grandstanding when they’d be better off at least trying to pretend to be on a bipartisan search for the truth. But, as we noted here last week, the reason these issues are still alive is that there are some serious questions still left answered about administration conduct and the lies that were told after Benghazi. The same goes for the IRS investigation. Though the creation of a select committee on Benghazi is a trip for Republicans, Democrats need to be wary of both underestimating its chair Rep. Trey Gowdy, a veteran prosecutor, and also of getting stuck in the position of defending what may turn out to be the indefensible.

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A year ago, as the news of the IRS scandal was breaking and the fallout from Benghazi was also becoming better known, Democrats were on the defensive about possible misconduct by the administration. A year later, their panic has subsided. By steadfastly denigrating the very idea that these scandals are, in fact, scandals, the administration, its political allies, and its cheerleaders in the media have begun to see issues like Benghazi as a battle cry for their base as much as it is for the Republicans. Far from worrying about the impact of investigations into the effort to target conservative groups by the IRS or what happened in Benghazi and its aftermath, liberals are cheered by the decision by the House GOP caucus to embrace these issues.

The conceit of the Democrats’ approach is one that is shared by many fearful conservatives. They think that what is being depicted as an obsessive pursuit of either minor wrongdoing or non-scandals will turn the Republican Party into a laughingstock in much the same manner that the government shutdown did. Since they take it as a given that there is no substance to the accusations of a cover up about government actions either before or after Benghazi or that the IRS controversy involved anything but overzealous bureaucrats, they believe the deeper the GOP dives into these investigations the more Democrats will benefit.

There is some substance to these concerns, since many in the GOP caucus have shown themselves to be incapable of conducting sober investigations or being able to avoid succumbing to grandstanding when they’d be better off at least trying to pretend to be on a bipartisan search for the truth. But, as we noted here last week, the reason these issues are still alive is that there are some serious questions still left answered about administration conduct and the lies that were told after Benghazi. The same goes for the IRS investigation. Though the creation of a select committee on Benghazi is a trip for Republicans, Democrats need to be wary of both underestimating its chair Rep. Trey Gowdy, a veteran prosecutor, and also of getting stuck in the position of defending what may turn out to be the indefensible.

If all this exasperates Democrats, it’s understandable since they thought that they had already finished weathering the storm of Obama’s scandal-plagued 2013.

After ducking for cover in the wake of the revelations about the IRS’s targeting of conservative and Tea Party groups, the confusing inconclusive narrative that House investigators were able elicit from witnesses diluted public outrage. And when Lois Lerner, the key figure in the scandal, invoked her Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination—but only after making a statement declaring her innocence and seemingly waving those rights—that led to a partisan squabble in the House Oversight Committee chaired by Rep. Darrell Issa that allowed Democrats to portray the whole thing as a witch hunt led by an intemperate partisan. That most Democrats voted not to charge Lerner with contempt for refusing to testify shows that they believe not only that there is no scandal but that Republicans will pay a price for pursuing it.

As for Benghazi, the sheer volume of congressional investigations about Benghazi that performed little in the way of actual probing similarly fed the impression that the country was ready to move on rather than searching for more answers.

But the discovery of a smoking gun email from Deputy National Security Director Ben Rhodes that seemed to speak of doctoring the talking points about Benghazi in order to downplay talk of terrorism and reinforce the false narrative about the attack being a case of film criticism run amok has reignited the controversy. House Speaker John Boehner’s decision to finally seat a select committee to investigate the matter may have come a year too late since the chaotic and largely incompetent hearings on the issue have done much to give former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other administration underlings cover. Democrats are divided as to what to do about the Benghazi committee because they are unsure whether taking part in the hearings will lend credence to the GOP probe or if staying away will make it easier for Gowdy to lead the probe toward dangerous territory for the administration.

But rather than solely focus on how much rope to give Republicans to hang themselves, Democrats shouldn’t blithely assume that Gowdy will not uncover more embarrassing revelations about the various aspects of the tragedy, including the failure to heed warnings about terrorism as well as the misleading talking points. Just as Republicans need to worry about playing their roles as dogged pursuers of the truth rather than a political attack squad, so, too, Democrats need to be careful not to overplay their hand.

Democrats acted this week as if they think they have nothing to lose in defending Lerner against contempt charges or stopping the GOP from forcing her to divulge whether anyone higher up in the government food chain had a role in the targeting of conservatives. By the same token, they seem to think that obstructing or mocking the Benghazi investigation will only help them in the midterms as well as protect Clinton’s 2016 presidential prospects.

Yet if Republicans conduct a serious investigation of Benghazi—as Gowdy intends to do—Democrats would be wise to join the South Carolinian in pursuit of the truth. If the probe comes up with nothing embarrassing for the administration and Clinton, they will have lost nothing. But if the select committee—which will have subpoena power and legal counsels conducting a thorough legal process—does learn that the Rhodes email was just the tip of the iceberg, then they, and not the Republicans, will be the big losers if they continue to kibitz on the sidelines. 

The ability of the administration and the media to table these stories is finished, and the sooner Democrats realize that the better off they will be.

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What’s To Be Done About Lois Lerner?

The House Ways and Means Committee voted today to urge the Justice Department to consider criminal charges against former Internal Revenue Service official Lois Lerner. There is good reason to believe Lerner violated the law by directing a discriminatory campaign by the tax agency against conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status. But neither committee chairman Dave Camp nor any other member of the Republican majority in the House is under any illusions about whether Attorney General Eric Holder and his staff will act on their recommendation. Though the Justice Department has been investigating this scandal since it came to light, there is little reason to believe they will act against Lerner or anyone else involved in the mess at the IRS. Democrats believe that the only reason the House GOP caucus is still focusing on Lerner long after most of the news media got bored with the story or took the hint from the White House to move along is that they still harbor the hope that her testimony could implicate the administration in the scandal and prove the illegal behavior was not just the actions of a “rogue” agency office in Cincinnati.

But whether or not they’re right about that, Lerner remains the key figure in a scandal about which we’ve learned little since the initial flurry of coverage in 2013. Since Lerner invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination when called before the House Oversight Committee last year (though not before she also claimed to have done no wrong and thereby, at least in theory, waiving her Fifth Amendment rights), the question of her fate has been held hostage to an undignified spat between that committee’s Republican Chair Darrell Issa and ranking Democrat Elijah Cummings. But if Republicans — and anyone else for that matter — want to get to the bottom of this affair, they’re going to have to find a way to make Lerner talk. And though Issa is seemingly loath to give up the fight to indict her for contempt that means offering Lerner immunity.

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The House Ways and Means Committee voted today to urge the Justice Department to consider criminal charges against former Internal Revenue Service official Lois Lerner. There is good reason to believe Lerner violated the law by directing a discriminatory campaign by the tax agency against conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status. But neither committee chairman Dave Camp nor any other member of the Republican majority in the House is under any illusions about whether Attorney General Eric Holder and his staff will act on their recommendation. Though the Justice Department has been investigating this scandal since it came to light, there is little reason to believe they will act against Lerner or anyone else involved in the mess at the IRS. Democrats believe that the only reason the House GOP caucus is still focusing on Lerner long after most of the news media got bored with the story or took the hint from the White House to move along is that they still harbor the hope that her testimony could implicate the administration in the scandal and prove the illegal behavior was not just the actions of a “rogue” agency office in Cincinnati.

But whether or not they’re right about that, Lerner remains the key figure in a scandal about which we’ve learned little since the initial flurry of coverage in 2013. Since Lerner invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination when called before the House Oversight Committee last year (though not before she also claimed to have done no wrong and thereby, at least in theory, waiving her Fifth Amendment rights), the question of her fate has been held hostage to an undignified spat between that committee’s Republican Chair Darrell Issa and ranking Democrat Elijah Cummings. But if Republicans — and anyone else for that matter — want to get to the bottom of this affair, they’re going to have to find a way to make Lerner talk. And though Issa is seemingly loath to give up the fight to indict her for contempt that means offering Lerner immunity.

We don’t know if, as many conservatives seem to take as an article of faith, Lerner and other IRS officials were acting on orders from higher up in the food chain. Given Lerner’s own past tangles with conservatives, there is good reason to believe she was an eager participant and perhaps was responding to the open hints about targeting conservatives and Tea Partiers issued by an administration determined to demonize their opponents. But given that there is little chance that Holder will act decisively to find out the truth about the IRS, the only way Lerner can be persuaded to talk is if Issa and his colleagues find a way to get her back in the witness chair prepared to talk.

As he seems to have done successfully with the fallout from the Benghazi terror attack and the lies told by administration figures about what happened, the president is seeking to run out the clock on the IRS. A year after the initial news that provoked outrage and even an apology of sorts from Obama, the mainstream press has moved on and Democrats are dismissing the issue as a partisan talking point rather than a blatant violation of trust that ought to concern both parties. To some extent this is the fault of Issa and House Republicans who have preferred to engage in verbal fisticuffs with Democrats rather than engaging them in an investigation that the president and his party would like to terminate. But no matter who’s fault this is, unless Republicans act soon to use their leverage with Lerner to get her to tell the truth, it will soon be too late to get to the bottom of a an act of criminal misbehavior that cries out for justice.

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